Cattleya skinneri


I am a native of Costa Rica and when I moved to the United States seven years ago, I brought a test tube baby of our National Flower, Cattleya skinneri. Since then, I have nursed the plant along and the pseudo-bulbs are now 3” tall. I have been fearful to put it outside where the deer might eat it so I keep it in my sunroom. Will this plant ever bloom? Denise R.


“Pura Vida” as they commonly say in Costa Rica. This catchy phrase is loosely translated as “celebrating good fortune, whether small or large”, and “enjoying life slowly.” Both interpretations apply to raising baby orchids.

One of the charming aspects of Costa Rica is its ecotourism program of growing and distributing native orchid seedlings to tourists and travelers who wish to take back souvenirs. The program was created to take pressure off of the rainforests which were being stripped of their wild vegetation. People come from all over the world to see this modest Central American country known for its larger than life tropical flora and eye catching exotic birds.

Airport customs officials are quite strict and don’t allow any plant material to leave the country. Even seeds have to be documented. Foreign countries are also leery of accepting tropical goods for concern of outbreaks of insects and disease, or lush growth. Think kudzu.

For decades, orchid seeds have been raised in laboratories within sterile glass containers called flasks which might hold a few dozen plants each.

Recently, however, a clever idea emerged of growing single orchid seeds in individual glass tubes for export purposes.

Any inspector could now see that the tiny seedling in that tube was not taken from the jungle nor was it covered with pests.

Once the tourist gets home with their cute little test tube orchid, the real challenge begins - Growing a baby orchid to maturity. Seven years to bloom if everything goes just right.

To your credit, seven years has passed and the plant is alive and well. No blooms yet but strong 3” leaf growths. What is needed now is a shot in the arm to make the new pseudo-bulbs double or triple in size. That’s when flowers appear.

Cattleya skinneri or Guaria morada, as it’s known among the natives (or Ticos), blooms in the springtime with clusters of light lavender flowers. It’s the National Flower because these plants are everywhere, just growing in the trees.

Cattleyas as well as other popular orchids such as Oncidiums (Dancing Ladies), and Paphiopedilums (Lady Slippers) only bloom on their newest leaf growth which has to be vigorous and substantial to support flowers.

Summertime is the right time to grow orchids. Long sunny days with temperatures in the 90’s and almost oppressive humidity may get people running for air conditioners but most orchids grow like weeds. The key is to get the right amount of light since few orchids can handle full midday sun.

Imagine the sight of wild orchids growing in the jungle – attached to tree limbs – where they receive light that has been diffused by enormous tree leaves, other tropical plants and morning mist. Growers refer to this dappled effect as ‘Intermediate’ or ‘Filtered Direct’ sunlight - more than complete shade but less than full sun.

Here in the temperate states, Hobbyists can create this ideal environment by moving their orchids outside for the summer and placing them underneath a trellis or by hanging them in the trees. An easy test of light intensity is to feel the orchid leaves. If they are warm to the touch, increase the shade.

And while deer will stop at nothing for a good meal, orchids don’t appear to be on their favored menu.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011 - 17:15